A Homeschooler Goes to School – for a Day!

(Originally published in Growing Without Schooling #96 (1993??).)

by Sarabeth Matilsky

I've been homeschooled all my life, and a few months ago I got fed up with people asking me so many stupid questions about homeschooling. I felt like I should go around wearing a sign that read: “No, I do not feel like I'm missing out by not going to school. Yes, I have plenty of friends. Yes, homeschoolers CAN get into college and get jobs.”

The list goes on forever. But I also knew that since I had never been to school, I couldn't really answer questions like, “Are you up to grade level? How do you KNOW you wouldn't like school?” So I talked it over with Mom and Dad, and they made arrangements with the local high school for me to spend a day in eighth grade. If it turned out that I enjoyed it I might be able to sign up for one class a year.

At this point, I started to get nervous. What would I wear? Would the kids tease me? Would I be different? I put a lot of thought into what I would bring, what I would wear, what I would eat. (I might mention that this was not entirely my own paranoia – before I went, people told me that it was very important to “fit in.”)

To decide what to wear, I went with my friend Jesse to the high school when school was letting out, to see what kids wear. I finally decided on one of Jesse's shirts and blue shorts.

As for food, I know what most people eat. The problem is, I try not to eat it! The first thing that occurred to me to bring was sushi. But I almost immediately vetoed that idea – too many “weird things” in it: sea vegetables, brown rice, umeboshi plums. Again, this was not my own paranoia. People have teased me when I've eaten “weird” food like sushi in public.

I eventually compromised with a cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread. (I did get some strange looks, though, when I pulled out my TWO sandwiches, an apple, an orange, and juice!)

The first thing I did on Monday morning was to report to the principal's office. He introduced me to Sara, who would take me to all of her classes that day. I would follow her class schedule and eat lunch when she did. She would even have to accompany me to the bathroom! Sara had an official note to show all her teachers, telling them why I was there.

As we left the office, someone blasted the Pledge of Allegiance over the PA system. This made me very uncomfortable, although I'm not sure why.

We spent the next 20 minutes in the auditorium. It was incredibly boring, because the teacher in charge handed out written announcements describing the upcoming school dance, and then proceeded to read the announcement aloud! Why waste our time reading aloud something that we all could read ourselves? Is the implication that high school kids cannot read something so simple?

Next was Social Studies where six kids had projects due. Their assignment was to report on the climate and food supply of a real or made-up country. Since they had maps and pictures to show us, the teacher directed them to form their chairs into a semi-circle and sit on the desks so we could see. After they had moved, the teacher got upset because they had dragged the desks! What else were they supposed to do? Those desks were heavy. He then lectured them, saying that behavior would be 10% of their grade and dragging desks was bad behavior.

I feel that this assignment taught them hardly anything. I didn't understand the point – what took them 44 minutes to say out loud could have been read by the class just as easily in five minutes. It also would have saved the humiliation of the shy kids who, when they talked too softly, were reprimanded by the teacher. I don't think that reprimanding them in this way will help them become good speakers in the future. Two boys looked like they were going to cry the whole time!

Math class was next. Since the class was working on algebra (which I haven't started yet), I spent the period looking around the classroom. Most of the kids did not look like they either understood or enjoyed algebra. They were just reciting answer to questions they didn't understand, as near as I could tell. But there were two boys toward the front of the class who raised their hands for almost every question. I also noticed a boy sitting behind me who kept asking questions, trying to understand WHY the problem worked. He did not want to know simply how to get the problem done, but why he was putting a number here and taking one away there. But the teacher did not seem to know how to answer his questions. She told him how to do it but she didn't seem able to explain why.

I really enjoyed science class. This teacher (unlike most of the others) was actually respectful of the students. He asked for their opinions, and respected them. He actually skipped an entire chapter in the book because he felt it was not relevant. The kids also looked genuinely interested. The teacher did not have to lecture them on behavior and the kids gave him no reason to. Also things like asking a lot of questions didn't bother him like they did the other teachers.

Next we went to the school library for 20 minutes of free reading (or in this case free talking). I think it was a very important period, because the students could unwind from the tensions already created by the previous classes. But it would have been even better if they could have gone outside and let some energy out.

Then came lunch. Because it was only 22 minutes long, I just had time to wolf down my sandwiches and gulp my orange juice. At this point I noticed the contrast between how people eat at school and how we eat at home. I hasten to point out that although mealtimes at home are far from perfect- the baby often decides to scream through the entire meal, or someone kicks someone else - we can eat whenever we want, with no fixed schedule. We also have a chance to finish – no time limits. We can take our food outside on nice days, which bring me to another point – the cafeteria. It's not that it was dark or small, but it was very noisy (and I'm used to noise!) and crowded. Altogether, I'm glad I didn't get indigestion.

People have often remarked to Mom and Dad, “But school prepares them for the real world. They have to learn ________.” In this case you could insert: How to eat lunch in 22 minutes. Mom says that at the worst job she ever had (at a factory), lunch break was half an hour. And there were coffee breaks, and you could eat food at your desk whenever you wanted.

After lunch I felt the need to urinate. For me to go to the bathroom, Sara first had to go to the teacher of her next class (Spanish) to tell her that she would be 30 seconds late, and then go halfway back to the cafeteria where the bathrooms were. When I questioned this, Sara said, “If we're late to class, I'm the one who will get detention, not you!”

The whole situation was degrading. At work, do you have to ask to perform necessary bodily functions? When I work at the food co-op, I don't ask the manager's permission to go to the bathroom!

Spanish class was bedlam. The students were rehearsing for a play which they were putting on the next day. They were trying to do the impossible, in my opinion. In 44 minutes they were trying to learn lines (in a language they didn't really understand), decide on props, scenery, and costumes. Plus, since they had not used the stage yet, no one had any idea of where they were going to move once they did use it. The teacher assured everybody that it would all “come together” the next day.

It was clear that nobody really wanted to do it (including the teacher), and after a which the kids started talking about other things. The only thing the teacher said for most of the class was, “Be quiet!” Nobody listened.

One interesting point: in Social Studies, the teacher TOLD the kids to sit on the desks, but when some kids sat on the desks in Spanish class, the teacher said it would break them. I guess that at the beginning of the year the savvy kids figure out what each teacher likes and dislikes, and if they pay attention to that, by the end of the year they can get a good grade.

We went upstairs for English, and the teacher read the class two satires. I love having people read aloud to met, but I don't think I would have chosen those particular stories. I didn't really mind them, but they were the kind of books my 7-year-old sister enjoys. Most of the kids looked bored, some were whispering, and the boy next to me was rolling his eyes and pushing his chair back. By the end of the class he must have pushed it back three feet!

Then came gym. It was awful! It started out by Sara handing the teacher her note. He didn't read it, and said, “Shut up and sit down!” Then he made us, for no apparent reason, sit cross-legged, three abreast, on the floor, and when he had finally bullied everyone into sitting in a line, he said, “Get outside!”

The first thing he did, once outside, was to say to a girl who was not wearing the right shoes, “Oh, not dressed right? Well, you're going to fail again!”

Then the other teacher said, “Everyone for softball over here, kickball over there, PRONTO!” As soon as the kickball game had started, I wished it was over. Any boy who missed the ball was called a “girl” by his so-called friends. After one boy missed, his “friend” came over to him and said, “You're not a has-been, you're a never-was!”

Then the teacher yelled at a boy who looked like he was about to cry, and it was my turn to be yelled at. The teacher came up to me and said, “Why aren't you playing?”

It was the end of the year and he didn't even know his own students! I told him I was visiting, but he didn't believe me until he called Sara over to interrogate her (she had given the note to the other teacher). He still was not friendly, until he found out I was homeschooled, whereupon he began oohing and aahing about homeschooling. It was very strange.

Finally gym class was over, but there were still three minutes left in the period so we had to sit down inside until the bell rang. When I got outside, I breathed in the fresh air. It was nice to be free again!

Spending the day in school did answer many questions I had had. I have always wondered how school was really run. Many of my friends came back with varied reports, but nothing that would answer many of my questions. And besides, seeing is believing! Also, in a way, the day made me feel like I COULD go to school, if I needed to (as in: I would be capable of doing the work).

It also definitely made me even more firm in my choice to homeschool. For one thing, there's so much to absorb in one day in school. With homeschooling, I can do just math one day, geography the next, or just go to a friend's house. Also, in school, you might just be getting into a subject when – brring! - the bell ends the period and you're onto something totally new.

One thing that also struck me was the amount of sitting in a day at school. Just sitting, with the only exercise walking from class to class. Being homeschooled makes it much easier to learn because you can get up, move around, touch things, and the whole process is hands-on.